Is Theology Simply Made Up? An Opening Unscientific Prescript on Kaufman

The Tower of Babel by Lucas van Valckenborch (1594).
(PD-1923, via Wikimedia Commons)
Used book sales are somewhat perilous for me (as we've already established.), and this past weekend was no exception. The family and I dropped in on the League of Women Voters' book sale with an empty whiskey box and a crisp $20 bill. We had some tough choices to make -- the woman at the cashier's table was in no mood to haggle. Sadly, Henri de Lubac's intro to Teilhard de Chardin didn't make the cut (probably just as well; I'm not primed to take Teilhard "into account" again any time soon). But the kid managed to score several of those "cat warrior" books, so he was happy.

For about five years or so now, Gordon Kaufman's In the Face of Mystery has been taunting me at the local remaindered bookstore. Now was my opportunity to bag it for $2. I just couldn't pass it up. Now, my references to remaindered books are by no means meant to sleight the late Harvard professor; I'll note that, to my shock, I found a copy of Barth's Church Dogmatics I/1 in the same pile, in almost perfect condition and virtually unread (as they usually are) -- also for $2. (I have two other copies of I/1, so I'll gladly mail it to the first respondent for a "donation" to my "non-profit" in the amount of $19.95, plus shipping and handling. Of course, it's the old T&T Clark edition, not the snazzy, newer Study Edition. But if it's any consolation, for an additional $2 I'll throw in the Introduction to Latin volume, and you can fill every weekend for the next five years parsing out the Aquinas and Polanus quotations in Barth's fine-print excurses.)

In the Face of Mystery: A Constructive Theology, By Gordon F. Kaufman (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993).

But, seriously, I do want to stress that by all accounts Kaufman was a truly brilliant thinker, lucid writer, and dedicated academic theologian. I studied with at least one of his former students, studied under another one, and even worked for another.

What I especially appreciate about Kaufman's work, as I understand it, is that it offers a very thorough, sobering, even deflationary perspective on the fundamental telos of the theological craft. Every student of Christian thought must wrestle with the penetrating question that has kept me up many nights over the years. I paraphrase it, rather pedantically (Kaufman, of course is more erudite and subtle): What if our religious beliefs and our theologies are simply made up, full stop?

From my sense of the field, many academic theologians today -- and probably a lot more pastors than we realize -- believe that religious discourse (along with symbols and practices) is a purely cultural phenomenon constructed through the creativity of human individuals and communities. Kaufman takes the bull of modern historical criticism and comparative religions by the horns. Such candor is refreshing, and many a teacher and cleric could learn something from it. In his seminal work of systematic theology, Kaufman examines religious concepts and symbols as human efforts to render the inscrutable mystery of reality (somehow) coherent and meaningful. Religious concepts serve as limit concepts that both highlight human finitude and, concomitantly, orient human thought and behavior. Such thinking will be familiar to those versed, for example, in the work of Wittgenstein, in pragmatism, and in the Anglo-American analytic philosophical tradition in general -- as well as to the Kantian holdouts, beleagured and chastened, who lurk dispiritedly around humanities departments. And, just to be clear (that is to say, to oversimplify matters): Kaufman's "mystery" is not quite the same as Karl Rahner's horizon of mystery -- the transcendental, supernatural ground of human experience, knowledge, and freedom. Nor is it the apophatic mystic's cloud of unknowing, which promises something even better than mere knowledge; something like direct, life-shattering contact with the divine. No, Kaufman's mystery just is the unknown, period. It is that which limits and hems in all human experience, in principle, full stop. Mystery is that realm of the inscrutable that not even a sophisticated philosopher and historian of religions such as Neil DeGrasse Tyson could ever hope to penetrate.

I have been thinking about these matters for quite some time (lot of good it's done me!). A couple years ago, I worked with great attentiveness through Kaufman's earlier (brilliant) Essay in Theological Method, a rigorous and provocative work. Let me be clear: With every theological bone in my middle aged body, I hope Kaufman's central claim is wrong. Or to nuance that, I hope that, even if he's mainly right, there really is something more than mere cultural construction upon which theologians might reflect -- a certain something that Barthians, Thomists, and other curmudgeons like me like to call "revelation." To be sure, religion as a purely human cultural phenomenon remains profoundly interesting from an anthropological perspective. But I'm not an anthropologist.

In his acknowledgements that begin this book, Kaufman is exceedingly gracious and appreciative toward thinkers from across the theological spectrum -- including those who operate in a more confessional, even a more conservative register than he (by my lights, that would include just about everyone). The ecumenical scope of his pluralism did, though, catch me a little off guard. He writes:

I must grant that the carefully qualified, and in certain respect agnostic, stance elaborated in this book does not provide the intense emotional satisfaction, or the sort of personal empowerment, characteristic of positions which believe themselves justified in proclaiming more concrete and specific certitudes about God, humanity, and the world (p. xiii).

I'll say. To his credit, Kaufman is candid here. Avoiding the pitfalls of "fanaticism" and "idolatry" that tend to adhere to more positive conceptions of theology does come at a certain cost. (Of course, I might add, classical theologians, more sanguine about the possibilities of divine revelation, had some things to say about human noetic incapacities as well, but that's a subject for a different post.)

Nonetheless, the gain for a constructivist theology is that, in our particular moment of late-modern, Western civilization, this method is more compatible than traditional theologies with the regnant ethos of inclusivism. Everyone gets a place at the table:

[i]t is a stance that provides a distinctive empowerment of its own: namely to open ourselves to everything human, to every position and claim; to listen sympathetically to every kind of experience--Christian, communist, Buddhist, deconstructionist, radical feminist, Muslim, liberal humanist, Nazi; to search for the human in everyone (ibid.)

Now that is what I call pluralism. To be fair, Kaufman was not likely to have encountered many Nazis wandering around Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the early 1990s. Aside from the occasional freaks like David Duke, true right-wing extremism has been relatively marginal in North American politics and culture until just fairly recently. And yet, dinosaur that I am, old but I do wonder if this rather incautious insertion stems from a category mistake, a failure to discern the limits of epistemological charity. Might Kaufman be conflating the question of the common dignity we all share as human beings -- I'm all down with that! -- with the thornier issue of whether we might want to grant equal epistemic status to all the perspectives represented by that list. I serious doubt a good liberal like Kaufman would actually wish to give equal air time to right-wing nationalist extremists. But for my part, if his theological method itself seems to leave the door cracked open, even a little bit, for that possibility, it does give me pause.

Hashing out such weighty questions would require ... wait for it... many more blog posts.




Thanks, Henry. As to your first point-- exactly! Apropos of your second point, I think it gets to the second point whether an authentic Christian theology can be built upon an anthropological foundation -- or at least a strictly anthropological foundation. I'm not convinced it can be, and engaging Kaufman (and similar proposals) reminds me why I feel that way.
Scott, I'm not sure I follow your closing point. Listening sympathetically to everyone is not the same as granting equal epistemic value to every position. The former is an ethical issue, not an epistemological one. Shouldn't we search for the humanity in every one? Isn't the whole point of the doctrine of justification, as Eberhard Jüngel would say, that we are not our works, that every person has dignity and significance regardless of the evil they may have committed or been complicit in?

As for the rest of your post, I liked it very much, and I feel, as you can imagine, a deep kinship with Kaufman.
Thanks, David. I could certainly see affinities between the recent direction of your work and what I am finding in Kaufman.

And thanks for the pushback. Let me try to clarify. I did not want to read too much out of the Kaufman quote, but it did startle me enough to write this post. I certainly agree that we must seek to find the humanity in everyone, even Nazis. Everyone is beloved and the object of divine grace, no matter what we have said, thought, or done.

My worry stemmed from the leveling character of Kaufman's relativism (though I concede such humility, if that's what it is can be salutary). Must we, can we really be open to *every* kind of human experience and perspective, even if some perspectives would undermine the very common humanity we claim to uphold. Must we really take every experience into account -- even if it something dehumanizing like racial hatred or extreme nationalism? And if we feel we must say no, on what basis do we do so?

I imagine Kaufman himself has resources for answering such questions, so I'll wait and see if that's the case, and if those answers seem to work.
Bobby Grow said…
I've never read Kaufman. Is there any relation between the kind of pluralism he seems to think from and what we find in Hick?
Well, I'm not an expert on Hick, but from what I've read he seems to be much more of a realist (in epistemology and metaphysics) than Kaufman. Hick argues that the myriad religious faiths are paths to the one, transcendent God, though I believe in his later work I believe he played down the God language. Kaufman (as I read him so far) is more radical than that. He conceives religion and theology as human efforts to orient and structure our experience, but seems to be agnostic on the question whether there is any real, transcendent referent toward which this religious language and cogitation actually points.
Bobby Grow said…
Your explanation of Hick is how I understand him. They definitely sound like they have different ends conditioning their respective work. Interesting. Would you say Kaufman is a theologian (or maybe instead is he more of an anthropologist/sociologist of religion)? I guess I could google him, but I'd like your take if you don't mind.
I'm glad to share my take. (But if you're still interested, I'd urge you to read some Kaufman for yourself. The Essay on Theological Method is short and quite accessible. The Mystery book is about 500 pp., but I think you can get a good sense of his approach by reading the intro and first couple of chapters, at least.)

Think of it this way. According to a certain understanding -- still highly influential -- theology is seen as thinking God's thoughts after God, though in a human register. From a more traditional Reformed perspective, let's say, theology is possibly because God accommodates the message to human categories of understanding (and begins to heal the noetic corruption of reason caused by sin).

From Kaufman's perspective, finite human beings have no reliable way of knowing they are thinking "God's thoughts" -- or even whether thinking of ultimate reality in terms of an intentional, intelligent, personal being -- or source of being -- is really intelligible. Modern historical and cultural awareness has taught us (he would say) to see that all our religious conceptions are a product human creation. This realization, if the full force of it is conceded, has led many to abandon systematic or constructive theology altogether and to turn to examining human religion in strictly comparative terms, using methods developed in the humanities and social sciences.

Kaufman accepts this anthropological turn in the study of religion and theology, full stop. And yet he believes that human beings and communities as a matter of course use grand concepts, symbols, images, and narratives to order and orient our experience, to give our lives purpose and direction in the face of our mortality and the inscrutable mystery that encloses and limits it. What Kaufman has done, it seems to me, is to take this basic insight and rather than trying to mitigate it, he has made it the linchpin of an entire revisionist theological method.

Humans carry out this task of creating meaning in myriads of ways, of course, depending upon a lot of factors, and the religions of the world represent the fruits of it -- but frameworks such as secular humanism are also attempting to render life meaningful and purposeful, in their own way. In Western religious and philosophical tradition, the major means of doing this has involved developing an overarching conception that names the mystery of reality, and its origin and goal, as "God." Despite the many problems the god-talk creates, Kaufman thinks it still has currency in the West and perhaps is even unavoidable for most of us.

Now my gut-level reaction to all this has tended to be: That's just anthropology, not "real" theology. But Kaufman's proposal is serious and requires a more critical and careful response than a gut-level reaction.
Unknown said…
Scott, as a liberal theologian, would you care to give me some necessary sources to better understand exactly why these men frequently pictured and written of on DET have "abandoned" inerrancy. I think it's a foundational issue, and I've struggled to see how the faith can remain intelligible and practiceable for God's glory in light of its denial. Thanks!
That's such a tall order, Andrew. Where to begin? I'd recommend some good, solid historical work. Though I haven't read all his books, Gary Dorrien is an excellent historian of Protestant theology and ethics, and has published works on the history of both evangelical and liberal-revisionist theology. James Livingston and Claude Welch have written superb surveys of modern Christian thought. Works such as these would help you home in on the major primary voices.

The conflict has such deep roots in modern Western thought and culture. How far back would you want to trace your question? You could go back to the modernist-fundamentalist controversies of the early 20th century. Or to the Enlightenment, including the English deists and Scottish empiricists. Or back further to Descartes and Spinoza, on the one hand, and 17th century orthodoxy. Some find the roots of the divide in the distinction between the Reformers and Renaissance Humanism -- i.e., in the famous Luther-Erasmus debate on free will (I'm not totally sold on this historical reading). Of course, there also are debates about the history of "inerrancy" itself -- whether it is a reiteration of classic, premodern theology in the West or whether it is best to think of it as a recent development, in response to the challenges of modernity. If the later is the case, we might think of liberal theologians not so much "abandoning" inerrancy -- as if it were the self evident norm for theology -- but as offering a different kind of response to modernity. None of this by itself would necessarily answer your underlying question, but it would give you some broader context in understanding alternative understandings on the nature of biblical truth.
Hi Andrew,

If I can venture to answer in loco Scottus, two points:

(1) Scott will correct me if necessary, but I doubt he would accept the appellation of "liberal theologian" without some qualification at the very least.

(2) On the doctrine of scripture, you might benefit from John Webster's book, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch. He doesn't address inerrancy at length, but that whole book is an argument for how one can have a fairly traditional doctrine of scripture (for instance, he gives an argument for something like verbal plenary inspiration) based on grounds very different from and vastly superior to inerrancy.
Indeed, Travis is correct. My relationship to "liberal theology" is ... complicated (sometimes even a bit vexed). Getting at the issue would entail my trying to define what the term even means. I do push back against some claims and presuppositions that some contemporary revisionists take to be self evident. But all this probably would seem like an in-house debate to a biblical inerrantist.

I'm no inerrantist, I'm open to the insights and methods of modern historical biblical criticism, I accept the mainstream scientific consensus on evolutionary biology, I refuse to accept first-century Hellenistic house codes as normative for contemporary gender roles in church and society, and so forth. So if those commitments make me a liberal in the eyes on an interlocutor, then I won't demur.

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